Christened an Engelmacher, or "angel-maker"
June 7, 2008 4:23 PM   Subscribe

NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT -- The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and moderate allowance from her late husband's friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent's care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds. This kindly nineteenth-century advertisement had a hidden meaning. If a woman paid her adoption fee to a baby farmer and handed over her infant, no one ever had to worry about that baby, ever again.

There were, of course, baby-farmers who took in children as actual providers of childcare, but the words "baby farming" acquired a very different sense. Without reliable contraception or any safe or legal abortions, poor unwed mothers in the English-speaking world of the nineteenth century had hardly any choices. Employers could turn out a girl "without references" -- quite the end of some work, such as domestic service -- if there was any hint of immorality about her. In a time of high infant mortality, prior to the reliable institution of birth certificates, it was unsettlingly easy for a newborn child to disappear. A combination of neglect and opiate-laced patent medicines would do for such children, and the formality of a burial could be foregone. Sometimes the children were simply smothered outright.

Amelia Dyer, of Reading, was hanged in 1896 for the murder of the infant Helena Fry, whose corpse was dragged from the river by a boathook, but she may have murdered dozens more. Minnie Dean, the only woman ever executed in New Zealand, was a baby farmer, convicted of the murder of Dorothy Edith Carter. The bodies of two other infants were found in her garden. American examples can be found in the free 19th century archives of the New York Times (all PDFs), although some women branded "baby farmers" by the reporters of the old Times seem more like victims of circumstance.
posted by Countess Elena (38 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a Victorian account from 1869, and another from 1898. (Running a GoogleBooks search on the topic turns up several other nineteenth-c. examples.) See also "Baby Farming" at Capital Punishment UK.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:36 PM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is darkly fascinating. Thank you for sharing!
posted by headspace at 4:40 PM on June 7, 2008

See also Butterbox Babies (story here).
posted by Sys Rq at 4:49 PM on June 7, 2008

Ooooh, neat! It's exactly like the first chapters of Oliver Twist!

Thanks for the post.
posted by cowbellemoo at 4:54 PM on June 7, 2008

Great post, thanks!
posted by languagehat at 4:58 PM on June 7, 2008

I had no idea! this is why I read metafilter.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:00 PM on June 7, 2008

Fantastic. I have learned a new word.
posted by mwhybark at 5:25 PM on June 7, 2008

Those Victorians were some fucked up mofos, jeez. I always knew it was tough for kids, but slowly killing babies? Christ on a stick.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:30 PM on June 7, 2008

Times were tough back then. We have progressed so far from those days of hidden meanings, baby farmers, and never having to worry about that baby ever again. Yes, indeed.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:34 PM on June 7, 2008

Thanks for the post.

Now, of course, people spend many years and tens of thousands of dollars to adopt an infant; it's hard to believe that there was a time when you could not only adopt all the children you wanted, but also get paid for it.
posted by math at 5:40 PM on June 7, 2008

Thomas J., thanks for that first link especially -- I must now read "The Seven Curses of London" entire.

weapons-grade, this topic hooked particularly into my mind because it seemed like a natural consequence of a society without contraception or legal abortion. Where sexual morality is stringent but human life is cheap, it should be no surprise that life will be disposed of cheaply. In a medical anthropology textbook I once had, an anthropologist studying young women in an inner city in Brazil was disturbed to see that one of her informants was practicing a socially recognized form of "benign neglect" on her unhealthy child, basically willing the boy to die. (I wish I could cite this; it may have been an article called "Culture, Scarcity, and Maternal Thinking," by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.) Baby-farming probably takes place today in areas where births aren't typically registered and sexual stigmas are strong.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:04 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your interested in this, I strongly suggest checking out Coram Boy, a new musical which hinges on this practice. As in many plays and musicals, the first act is far, far stronger than the second, but the first is one of the best I've seen in ages.


The first act involves a Coram Man, who makes his living baby farming along with a mentally deficient young man as his ward. When one of the young women of a wealthy and influential family gets scandalously pregnant, giving the child away to this man seems the only option. The first act ends (after the child has been given away) as numerous murdered infants are being pulled from their shallow graves. In an effect I've almost never seen before withtheatre, the entire audience was literally shaking at intermission.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:32 PM on June 7, 2008

posted by LobsterMitten at 6:32 PM on June 7, 2008

posted by orange swan at 6:54 PM on June 7, 2008

I have never heard the term, baby farming. You learn something new everyday. It boggles the mind how a parent could have their baby farmed out then fetch it when it reaches toddler age. Bizarre.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:09 PM on June 7, 2008

Bathwater thrown. Options available on request.
posted by hal9k at 7:16 PM on June 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

A criminal law lecturer of mine said that"farming" implied that the owners "planted" the babies in the ground: that is, that they killed them and concealed the bodies. One famous baby-farming case was Makin v A.G. for New South Wales in which the owners were convicted of murder after the bodies of twelve other infants were found buried in the grounds of houses rented by the Makin family.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:30 PM on June 7, 2008

...this topic hooked particularly into my mind because it seemed like a natural consequence of a society without contraception or legal abortion.

Nonsense. Once abortion is outlawed here in the United States, women will get religion and simply stop having babies out of wedlock. God told me so.
posted by Avenger at 7:42 PM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is most alarming.

Fascinating links. Thanks.
posted by zhwj at 8:08 PM on June 7, 2008

Sad. So very, very sad.

I could snark about contraception, or requiring justifiable dismissal, or state stupport of single parents, or a bunch of other things that have made us more civilised than our forbears, and how some people seem so damn keen to strip them away again for greater mortality, but I just don't have the enthusiasm, somehow.
posted by rodgerd at 8:18 PM on June 7, 2008

A many years ago,
When I was young and charming,
As some of you may know,
I practised baby-farming.

- Buutercup, A Many Years Ago, H.M.S Pinafore
posted by The Bellman at 9:07 PM on June 7, 2008

Crazy. Excellent post.
posted by GuyZero at 9:35 PM on June 7, 2008

I expect a Rasputina track about this in their next album.

The good ole days of yore. It's time for a return to the family values that were practiced not too long ago, when respectability was paramount and a thrifty, enterprising soul could make good coin from any opportunity. Without intrusive government to tell us how to raise our children, we were truly free. It was an era in which, free of burdensome government regulations upon pharmaceutical industries, we could make medicines as we wished, filled with nature's own miracle - the poppy - and various other elements to solve a few ... little problems.

The good old days - what a crock.
posted by adipocere at 10:13 PM on June 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

I live just round the corner from Hertford Road, East Finchley, home of Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the 'East Finchley baby farmers'. It's a desperately sad case, which you can now read about in detail on Old Bailey Online (just one of the many extraordinary stories in that extraordinary database). Here's one of the mothers describing how she gave up her baby for (as she thought) adoption by a wealthy lady:

ROSINA PARDOE. I am single, and a domestic servant, of Stanley Villa, Finchley -- last year I found myself pregnant [..] When I got to Claymore House, Sach asked me what I was going to do with the baby -- I said I was going to have it put out to nurse -- she said she knew ladies who would adopt it it I would agree -- I had seen the words "Baby can remain" in the advertisement [..] She said she knew a lady who would adopt it for £30 [..] I asked her what the money was for; I thought if the ladies were wealthy ladies, £30 would not be wanted, and she said the ladies liked to buy presents for the babies [..] On Wednesday November 12th, about 8.30 a.m. my baby was born -- Sach attended to me -- I had no doctor -- the baby was a girl -- Sach took it straight away -- she just lifted it up for me to see and then took it downstairs to wash it -- she brought it back and told me to kiss it goodbye -- I did so -- it was taken downstairs and I never saw it again [..] I told her that I hoped the baby would be good and that they would be kind to it -- she assured me that they would be very kind [..]

Sach was the midwife; Walters disposed of the babies afterwards. One baby was poisoned with chloroform, though it's not clear from the trial report whether Walters intended to kill it or just wanted to stop it crying. Here's the statement she gave to the magistrate:

Your Worship, I cannot give you other Telegram, Dated 12th November, as I gave it to Mrs Sach the night I fetch the baby I received two telegrams from her to fetch the baby girl at five, and the other Telegram was meet me at eight same place, that is on Satday night the first one I had to take to Aldgate Staishin to meet a lady at ten minets to four I was to soon so I went to Lockhart's to get some Refreshment I got that and left at four I ment the lady, she was in a Brougham she said you have come. I said yes I am could get in give me the baby I gave it to her she said untye the parcell I untied it then she in Dress the baby and gave me the closes and drest it in fine lase Robes and a boutful colke and Lace Vale she said it will be a lovly baby I said it is good little sole it never cry had it at hall she said I am going to Ireland or Scotland, I don't know wich but I am going to Pickidlley I will Drop you at St James Street the baby was Dress and still asleep she said to me I have a bottle of Shampain in my bag poor me out a glass she Drank that and then she gave me one I said only a little I am not house to that she said it wont hurt you then I got out she gave me ten shilling I said let me know how you get home goodnight a title lady was going to adopt it I met the lady at Mrs Sach when I went there one day Mrs Sach said there is Mrs Rogers a Lady Friend of mine that is all I know of this one the little baby as the Telegram said meet me at 8 was to be taken to Kensington Stashn I meet the same lady at Archway Tavern the road to Higagt Stathn she said to me the baby goy get to-night you bring it to Kensington Statshn Monday or Tuesday be there by 10 I am going to take it to a cost Gards wife, Eastboworn I will give you ten shilling for you trouble I said, very well she had a hansom cab I walk from Higate Statithn to East Finchley I alwayes though Mrs Sach name was Maud she sind her name Maud alway to me an she told me she Reseve no money for the baby the mothers was hartless thing leving them in her hands I can't tell you anymoor as I don't know any think else I was greatly surprise to hear she Reseve no money from the mothers and you know the rest the baby was only covered as farr as there waist it is a untrth what the 3 witnesses said I coved the woolen shall over the little Face and that had howles in it I did not say I did not want Mr Seal to come in I said I did not want to disturve him as he was asleep in the next room the baby cried all night on Saturday nght Miss Seal said in the morning you had a bad night, Mrs Walters I said yes I gave the baby two drops of Chlordine, not intenthin to arm it only to mak it sleep I have taken a bttleful and it don't hurt me I gave it nothing but that Yours obediently Annie Walters

Verdict: GUILTY. Recommended to mercy by the jury mainly because they were women.
Sentence: DEATH.
posted by verstegan at 10:35 PM on June 7, 2008

Wow. Terrific post. Thank you very much.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:50 PM on June 7, 2008

One last comment on the Sach/Walters case -- to me, the most astonishing aspect of the case (apart from the fact that it all took place 5 minutes walk away from where I'm typing these words) is that it happened in 1903 .. yes, 1903, not exactly within living memory but not so far from it either. If the babies farmed by Sach and Walters had lived into adulthood, it's not inconceivable that one or two of them might still be tottering round an old-people's home somewhere.

The houses in Hertford Road still stand much as they did in 1903, and with a bit of research one could probably identify Claymore House where Sach had her 'nursing home'. Most of the places mentioned in Walters's statement still exist. Archway Tavern, where she claimed to have met the lady who took away the baby for adoption, still operates as a pub. London is like that -- for all the changes that have taken place in the last hundred years, there are times when the past seems so close you could almost reach out and touch it.
posted by verstegan at 11:35 PM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oddly enough, I was familiar with this practice from a children's novel I read about it years ago - Mama's Babies, by Gary Crew.
posted by jacalata at 12:20 AM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

After great grandma died in the spanish flu and great grandpa turned insane from syphilis my grandfather had something similar done to him. His brother was a bit older so the town just bought a one way boat ticket to the US for him. Whoo, bye bye problem.

Grandpa was sold off to the lowest bidder, some not so nice person that had him living together with the animals and basically treated him like one. He turned out a a very tough but not very nice person. Grandpa died alone at the insanity ward, just like his dad.

My mom has an older sister that died under circumstances almost identical to the ones described in this post.

So even for me, relatively young person (I'm 32) these things are sortof within living memory. The older folks at the place where my mom grew up remember these things happening and from these and all the other stories of insane, drunken, suicidal misery I'm not surprised that generation put building a welfare state somewhat high on the agenda.

The last angel-maker sentenced to death in Sweden was Hilda Nilsson in 1917.
posted by uandt at 4:07 AM on June 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's important to see baby farming in the context of the times. Sexual morality for the middle and upper classes was very strict, and working class people were held to those strict standards too. Of course, behind the scenes there was all sorts of lewdness and prostitution, but for most it was important to uphold the appearance at least of moral rectitude. A working class girl having a baby out of wedlock was clear evidence of moral laxity, and in the absence of affordable contraception, sex education, or anything like safe abortion, giving the baby away was often the only way to avoid complete destitution of a young mother.

The victorian age in england was a massive transition from a still largely agrian economy to a land of vast, dense cities, industrialization and pollution, and a much more urban population, tied hand-in-hand with a strict religious morality, secret escapes from the same, and the concept that hard work determined your fate; if you were poor, it was because you deserved to be, because your parents were, and because that was your 'stock'. Sexism was par for the course, and of course racism was still around in great measure.

Though later on, there were institutions of the workhouses, even then social safetynets barely existed. If you didn't work, or steal - you died, and so did your family. Life as a working class single mother was harsh indeed.

Also, the life of children was very different. In working class familes, children were often treated as small adults from a very young age, 5 or 6 onwards. They wore cut down adult clothes, and went out to work for a living in the new industries, often doing jobs that took advantage of their small size and fingers - with an unhealthy disregard for health and safety. This was simply out of necessity - children had to earn their keep. With the mother working too, there wasn't exactly a cheap daycare centre they could be left at, though grandparents and other family members would be involved.

In the middle and upper classes, childcare was more available, but your average pre-teen wouldn't recognise it. The wife's job was often to look after the house and the husband, and that didn't change with children. Childcare would often be delegated to the nursing staff pretty much entirely, until the children were of more interest, and able to hold an adult-style conversation. Education was more available than for working class children, and often private tutors would be involved. There was a huge service class of people that did all the day-to-day jobs that now are done by the parents, or through automation. Farming a child out to a nurse mother in the local village for a year or two is not much different than having your in-house wetnurse do so, and probably cheaper to boot. Children were seen and not heard by adults as a rule - decorum and proper respectful behaviour was expected.

The concept of a children being babied for the first 20 years of their life, able to do what they wanted, how they wanted with parents bending to their whims, giving them vast amounts of toys and electronic gegaws to while away their first couple of decades, with the opinions and wants of young children given as much import as that of adults - such things would have horrified your average middle class victorian.

That's not to say children never got to play or have fun - but they did so much more out of the gaze of their parents, where they wouldn't have to bothered or annoyed by it. Father would be home, and he'd expect peace and quiet when he wanted it, though he no doubt would love his children and play a proper game of cricket with them on occassion or the like. Poorer children would play in the streets, and seek what fun they could in the narrow backalleys.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:30 AM on June 8, 2008

Actually, now I think of it - if you want to see what your average hard rightwinger wants life to return to, the early english victorian period is probably what they have in mind. Strong involvement of the church on state activites, a light hand on government regulation of corporate activity and envirnomental impact, abortion, contraception and decent medical care only for the upper classes.
A limited welfare state, and a service class that knows their place, because if they rebel, they get the boot. Ineffective unions. Extremely harsh criminal penalties, often death, for minor crimes. Endemic racism and sexism, again as 'people know their place'. Military adventurism and colonialism bringing resources and money back to the home country.

They conveniently forget the sky-high crime-rate, ill health, destitution, social hardship and high infant mortality, and don't even see the sexism, environmental damage and colonailism as a downside.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:42 AM on June 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

George Moore's Esther Waters (1894) describes the impossible economic and social circumstances that might drive a young, impoverished Victorian woman to "farm out" her child. It's a compelling account, although the novel comes with an undoubtedly happier-than-average outcome for all involved.
posted by Hellgirl at 7:58 AM on June 8, 2008

Also, the life of children was very different. In working class familes, children were often treated as small adults from a very young age, 5 or 6 onwards.

This isn't really accurate. Childhood in the 19th century was different from our own, but they were not "small adults", even if they wore cut down clothes (everyone wore handme down or used clothes, adult or child). They were children and adolescents - there was a long "youth" period when men and women were working, but weren't really adults but wage labourers or servants (from early teens to early twenties). In fact, legal adulthood did not come until age 21, even among poorer people, or even 25 in 17th century France. It's hard for 20th century people to understand sometimes that even though they might have worked, children were still conceived of as children, and had different rights and responsibilities to adults.
posted by jb at 9:21 AM on June 8, 2008

back to the article - what is most shocking to me are the rates paid. £12 was a huge amount of money; even 15s/month is a pretty steep fee. In Yorkshire, rural women made about 12d or 1shilling per day as labourers in 1851 (review of book), which would be 6s/week (if they could get work all week). This site gives annual wages (scroll down) for domestic servants c1890; this didn't include food or board, but a kitchen maid would only have £15/year (still much more than a labourer).
posted by jb at 9:44 AM on June 8, 2008

I would also recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's excellent book Mother Instinct, with its eye-opening accounts of women in tough circumstances engaging in infanticide as a matter of course, just to survive or keep existing children alive; thus the world without contraception.

Ironically, yesterday that the "American Life League" denounced the anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, which protected the right to use contraception, as the beginning of 40 years of moral decay.

In response, blogger Mighty Ponygirl declared yesterday "National Screw While On Contraception Day." Posts like this one only highlight how right she is.
posted by emjaybee at 9:53 AM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

A parallel phenomenon is happening in contemporary Africa, driven by poverty and inequality, just as baby farming was in Victorian England, in my opinion:

In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are accused of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned. Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, have been accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often as a rationale for not having to feed or care for them.
posted by jamjam at 10:49 AM on June 8, 2008

Good God, that was depressing. I think I have to go kiss my little boy.
posted by echolalia67 at 2:26 AM on June 9, 2008

I second echolalia67. I'm going to do the same.
posted by pinky at 5:22 AM on June 9, 2008

Thank you, this brought to my mind the play "Les Miserable". While I'm not sure the innkeepers qualified as baby farmers. Jean ValJean had to pay them to rescue Cossette from mistreatment. I think that before she died, Fantine was paying them for Cossette's keep.
posted by Librarygeek at 6:08 AM on June 17, 2008

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